A new Hungarian epic follows 12 generations of one family through 300 years of suffering. Sam Munson considers the obstacles confronting artists who would mine truth from history. The Book of Fathers Miklós Vámos trans. by Peter Sherwood Other Press Dh54 There exists a long-standing and apparently insatiable hunger in Europe and America for novels that take as their subject not the sufferings of any single person, but of nations, cultures, worlds - for plots encompassing not weeks or years but vast spans of historical time. A hunger, in other words, for history itself, for stories of its ultimate defeat of any single human enterprise, for historical suffering examined and re-imagined under the aegis of art - not merely as testament to what happened, or a goad to political reform. Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers, a dense reworking of the Biblical story of Joseph's exile and return, remains the purest example of such a work; others have been written by Halldor Laxness, Gunter Grass, Isak Dinesen, Hugo Claus and WG Sebald.
A recent addition to this lineage is The Book of Fathers by Mikos Vámos, a Hungarian journalist, essayist and the bestselling author of 11 previous novels. That a Hungarian composed such a novel is not surprising. The Hungarian nation has, in its different forms, endured its fair share of tramplings by various powers, in addition to being subjected to some of the worst brutalities of both the Nazis and the Soviets. "A Magyar takes even his pleasure mournfully," runs a native proverb, and mournful contemplation is perhaps the mode most appropriate to the novel of historical trauma (followed closely by the blackest of gallows humour).
The Book of Fathers chronicles 12 generations of the Csillag family, from the early 18th century to the early 21st. The Csillags (or Sternovitzkys, or Sterns, names the family's male heirs come to bear through historical accident) provide a lens for Vámos to examine Hungary's internal political strife and yearnings for independence, its rise as a cultural locus of the Habsburg Empire, Hitler and Szalasi's victories there, Stalin's invasion, the long years of Soviet government and its collapse: a highlight reel, more or less, of political modernity, one Hungary is suited as few other nations to produce. The family fortunes rise and decline; Csillags become vintners, merchants, professional gamblers; family members are elevated to minor positions in the nobility or reduced to thievery; Istvan Sternovitsky, one of the heirs, converts to Judaism, complicating even further his family's relationship to its nation. Unlike so many other Central European stories, the Csillags' does not end in a concentration camp - the family, or rather one branch of it, manages to survive Hitler - but in contemporary Budapest, where the eldest male heir has come to reside.
The passions and perversities of the Csillag males - a preternatural gift for music, a years-long affair with a sister-in-law - constitute the driving force of The Book of Fathers. And there is a great deal to be admired along the way. Vámos is capable of producing incredibly acute and economical observations of the most extreme human conditions. Here, for example, he describes the wife of one of the Csillags dying in a concentration camp:
"She was trodden into the mud, she lashed out repeatedly, screaming something in German. The two guards bashed her brains out with the stocks of their rifles, oblivious to the fact that Ilse was reciting a Heine poem, studied in the fourth form of German primary schools, describing the glories of the autumn landscape. (While it is true that that particular textbook had been, together with Heine and many other poets, withdrawn by 1936, the two soldiers must certainly have attended school before that date.)"
Vámos delivers this episode almost as an aside; its brevity and clarity render it all the more terrible. Vámos seems to be acknowledging that what lends world-historical brutality its power in our imaginations is not its unreality but precisely its reality, precisely the minor, glanced-at particulars of every such incident. This level of insight, sadly, is missing from the book's larger design, which fails when it looks beyond isolated, illuminated moments for meaning.
Instead of the surgical precision the above scene demonstrates, Vámos contents himself with schematic narrative ploys. The book's title announces a central one: each chapter, and each generation of Csillags, is notionally connected to the next by a document called "The Book of Fathers" - a group of folios comprising the memoirs and counsel of each Csillag that is alternately abused, neglected, lost and found. As one might expect, this heavy-handed device does not create any true sense of narrative unity. We are made privy to a great deal of bloodshed (the book opens with the slaughter of the first Csillag's entire family, save for one young boy) and a great deal of everyday failure (the last Csillag is a singularly unimpressive specimen, a passive and colourless small-time real-estate developer). But beyond that, beyond repetitive and highly literal demonstrations of the fragility of any particular human's place in the world, and of any culture's place in the flux of history, Vámos does not summon forth any deeper thematic coherence.
The battered "Book of Fathers" is only the first of several failed attempts Vamos makes to unite his many brilliantly-lit, striking set pieces. He also gives every firstborn Csillag male the ability to gaze, with the aid of an antique pocket-watch, back into the memories of his forefathers, to take possession of their knowledge, to feel their physical experiences. At the height of the family's wealth and influence, this power even extends into the realm of precognition; as the family's strength wanes, the gift grows weak.
This is rather straightforward borrowing from the structural lexicon of magical realism, a genre deeply concerned with the vagaries of history. And Vámos introduces the paranormal quite artfully - never in the service of crudely advancing the plot. The knowledge gleaned through the pocket-watch is rarely helpful - it turns one of the Csillags into an eccentric musical recluse and another into a gifted professional gambler. This is a psychologically plausible account of what such a gift might to do a person or a family. But, considered within the book's broader architecture, this insight becomes almost insignificant, especially since Vámos suggests again and again that the power is a useless one: the gambler, Mendel, cannot prevent his wife and children from dying of disease; another Csillag, Szilard, suffers from all his life from premonitions of his early death, but they fail to spur him to live more richly or bravely.
Vámos does not stop there with the obvious atmospherics. The very names of the protagonists Csillag being Hungarian and Stern German for star hint heavily at a connection with history, with unalterable destiny. The book is divided into 12 sections - just like, Vámos makes sure to remind us, the Gregorian year and the Zodiac. His inclusion of the Csillags in all of the involuted critical events of Hungarian history for the past three centuries is admirable for the breadth of its scope, but it puts a serious strain on the readers' credulity. Whether all these structural interventions succeed or not, they all undermine the book's basic constitution. Vámos intends The Book of Fathers as a novel of history, an enterprise that requires a deep connection to actual historical experience. Yet he has chosen to let the work depend on a series of corrosive improbabilities - no single family, for example, could ever be so neatly entangled with modern European political strife - and outright impossibilities like magical clocks for its coherence.
Readers and critics will, of course, sympathise with Vámos's plight. The problem of depicting human destiny, its crises and calms, has proven to be almost intractable for novelists considering the movements of history, particularly movements as blood-drenched as those of modern politics. But a novel survives on its compositional unity, whether that unity expresses itself through cohesive narrative or through the oblique and fragmentary. How can a medium as ghostly, as sensually rarefied, as writing capture anything of that vast sweep, of its hells and heavens? Some distortions are inevitable; this, however, should not serve as an excuse. Indeed, for certain writers, it has served as a prod to ever higher, ever more serious efforts in structural artfulness.
Consider Tolstoy's depictions of the battles of the Napoleonic wars in War and Peace, which move from close examinations of the minds of individual soldiers, to painterly evocations of the battle as a whole, to poetic statements about the majestic futility of war - all as if in a single breath. Consider the feat of compression accomplished by WG Sebald in his novel Austerlitz, wherein a series of encounters between two lonely European academics resonates with all the destruction and glory of the 20th century. These are of course, two near-perfect examples of the novel of history. But a work as ambitious as The Book of Fathers invites such comparisons - and suffers almost to the point of perishing by them.
The Csillags' long story both opens and closes in spring (every chapter of the novel begins with a short anchoring paragraph corresponding to a month of the year, another of the author's gestures at significance). Vámos closed this circle, one cannot but assume, to emphasise the truth that despite all human suffering, no matter how great or how petty, life continues. An admirable attitude, but hardly sufficient as the philosophical grounds for a novel of as long and broad as The Book of Fathers. Stoicism may have served as a salve to philosophers, soldiers, kings, prisoners and other explorers of the extreme throughout the ages. But in the mouth of an artist, it becomes self-defeating banality. The gift of the Csillags proves to be a finally useless one; all of their collective pain - nominally the novel's central subject! - finds itself relegated to the status of preparation for some vague, vast redemption, for all of the family's misery to be made right in a mild universal spring. If, as Vámos seems to suggest, the only meaning history possesses is its cyclical movement in time, why bother trying to refashion it into something aesthetically or philosophically meaningful? Why write The Book of Fathers (or any other novel)? Miklós Vámos has written 28 books, fiction and nonfiction, a fact demurely stated among the other verbiage on the back of The Book of Fathers. In Hungary, it seems, the unconquerable literary work ethic of the 19th century has not yet passed into obsolescence. How dispiriting it is, then, that this energy should be married to the most hubristic tendency of our literary era - the sacrifice of the richest material to globe-spanning but finally inadequate intellectual ambition. The extraction of truism from catastrophe is a thriving industry in the modern world, but one that artists would do well not to participate in. Sam Munson is a regular contributor to The Review. His first novel, The November Criminals, will be published next spring by Doubleday.